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MONTREAL—Comforted by the contradictions befitting classic Orwellian “doublespeak,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the Sommet de la Francophonie in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over the weekend.
Prior to the weekend, Harper had already indicated to the Congolese, with a straight face no less, that they should engage in actions that favour democracy and respect for human rights. Such a posture of talking down to the Congolese allows Ottawa to cut short all legitimate questions concerning the historic responsibility of Canadian businesses and the Canadian government in the Great Lakes area conflict in Africa that claimed millions of Congolese lives between 1996 and 2003.
In the early 1990s, the power hold of Joseph Mobutu's Congolese kleptocracy had begun to waiver. Mobutu, who had ruled the Congo, and before that Zaire, as absolute master, largely by supporting the country's social system with a nationalized mining infrastructure, suddenly found himself cut lose by his former supporters. These included most notably Belgium, France and the United States.
Under pressure from the World Bank, Mobutu opened the country's prized asset, its mining sector, up for privatization. Barrick Gold, the Canadian gold mining outfit, at the time received an exploration lease for a mind-boggling 82 000 km2. Justin Kanhwenda, former assistant to the special representative of the Great Lakes area to the Secretary General of the UN, has noted that the Barrick Gold deal officially signalled to the world that the Congo was open for business.
What followed was the triggering of a bloody and protracted conflict over the country's mineral resources. The High Commissioner on Human Rights, referring to the violation of fundamental rights during this period, summarized the conflict as a clash between armed rebel groups and militias representing the government's interests. Both sides made war to secure mining leases, which they would then concede to international, private enterprises, for the very purpose of continuing to finance their own war.
Yet another UN report on the war-torn Congo, this one published in 2002, highlighted the actions of nine mining Canadian companies in particular, including AMFI, Banro and First Quantum Minerals. The report found that their actions went against the guidelines for multinational enterprises of the France-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, as their dealings in the Congo were considered unethical.
In the mid-2000s, the Congolese parliament had recovered slightly from the shock of years of mineral-driven civil war, and created a commission charged with studying the contracts signed between the government and private industry during war time. The commission, signed-off on by then president Christophe Lutundula, concluded that an impressive number of extremely unequal contracts had been signed between private companies and the government-at-war during the period of 1996 and 2003. These ultra-advantageous contracts involved numerous Canadian companies, notably Anvil and Emaxon. Some of these Canadian companies ratified these contracts via their subsidiaries located in tax-haven nations.
A commission to “revisit” these mining contracts was subsequently put in place to attempt to restructure their terms, at least superficially. Fear of reprisal from foreign investors has limited this commission's strength.
Amidst the UN sources already mentioned, the “expert” report mandated by the UN Security Council on the October 16, 2002 (S/2002/1146) recommended that home nations investigate the companies suspected of having profited from the pillage of resources in the Congo during the war. The report added in no uncertain terms:
“The Governments have the power to regulate and sanction those individuals and entities. They could adapt their national legislation as needed to effectively investigate and prosecute the illegal traffickers. In addition, the OECD Guidelines offer a mechanism for bringing violations of them by business enterprises to the attention of home Governments, that is, Governments of the countries where the enterprises are registered. Governments with jurisdiction over these enterprises are complicit themselves when they do not take remedial measures.”
The UN report mentioned that the experts themselves did not have the legal prerogative to carry out such investigations, or bring private companies to justice.
Canada never capitulated to these demands. It did perhaps win itself some points, and time, by organizing round table consultations with various concerned parties, all within the sterile, and legally-unbinding, environment of determining “good governance.” The “consensus” that came forth from these consultations amounted to nothing, except for Ottawa's nomination of a powerless “ethics counsellor.” For this continued inaction, Canada has assumed the global leadership role as the regulatory and judicial safe haven of choice for mining companies. Today, 75 per cent of mining companies choose to register themselves within the Canadian legislative framework, as the lax system of accountability assists them in their mining endeavours outside of Canadian soils.
Canadians driven by ethic convictions are today at the same point as were Europeans at the end of the 19th Century. All attempts are made by the government to hinder the identification of the individuals responsible for the grave suffering caused to the Congolese people. In the age of Belgian colonial domination in the Congo, the Brit Edward Dene Morel and the American author George Washington Williams, having gathered information from returning Europeans as to the atrocities being committed, drew grave hypotheses as to the true goings-on in the resource rich African nation. Diplomat Roger Casement confirmed these allegations in an investigation undertaken by the British government.
Today, Canada has still not undertaken a similar investigation. Instead, we find ourselves with a regressive government seeking, through any possible artificial means, to create colonial-inspired propaganda that allows Canada to assume the role of a democratic older brother to the Congo. All this, when in reality the pressure should be weighing on Canada.
Alain Deneault's most recent book, written with William Sacher, is Imperial Canada Inc.: Legal Haven of Choice for the World's Mining Industries (Talonbooks: 2012). He is a member ATTAC-Québec and the Réseau international pour la justice fiscale. Translation from the French by Miles Howe.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.